Aaron Donald doesn't need sacks to be NFL Defensive Player of the Year

Aaron Donald was almost unblockable at defensive tackle this season for the Rams. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The yearly awards handed out by the Associated Press will be unveiled during the NFL Honors show at 9 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC. Several members of the Los Angeles Rams stand as legitimate candidates, perhaps even favorites. That's what happens when you finish with an 11-5 record and a plus-149 point differential. This week, while waiting for the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots to face off in Super Bowl LII, we'll take a closer look at those Rams candidates. Next up is Aaron Donald and the AP Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Numbers: Donald held out all summer, didn't return in time for the opener and sat out the regular-season finale. He still put up 11 sacks, tying a career high and tying for 11th-most in the NFL. He added five forced fumbles (tied for second), 27 quarterback hits (tied for fourth) and 15 tackles for loss (tied for ninth). But that doesn't come close to telling the whole story. Pro Football Focus uses pressures -- a combination of sacks, hits and hurries -- for a more accurate representation of a pass-rusher's effectiveness. Donald created 91 total pressures, more than any other defensive player.

Defining moment: Donald was at his best when the games mattered most. A perfect example came in what ended up being the Rams' lone playoff contest against the Atlanta Falcons. Donald pressured the quarterback 10 times in the first half of that game, an eventual 26-13 loss from Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. No player had done that since J.J. Watt in 2014. Donald faced five playoff teams over his last seven games and totaled 6.5 sacks.

Why he should win: Donald's pressure numbers would be elite for an edge rusher. They seem unrealistic for an interior defender who faces constant double and triple teams. Consider: Pro Football Focus gave Donald a near-perfect pass-rush grade of 99.7 this past season. The next interior defender was the Eagles' Fletcher Cox at 90.3. His 91 total pressures were 21 more than the runner up at his position, the Cincinnati Bengals' Geno Atkins. In short, nobody dominates his position like Donald.

Why he wouldn't: Because sacks -- and, by the same token, interceptions and tackles -- typically go a long way with an award like this. Four defensive tackles have been named AP Defensive Player of the Year since the sack became an official stat in 1982, and all four of them did so after finishing within the top 10 in sacks. The award has gone to a defensive lineman six teams since 2001. But they've all been edge rushers, and five of them finished within the top five in sacks. Calais Campbell of the Jacksonville Jaguars and DeMarcus Lawrence of the Dallas Cowboys each had 14.5 sacks, while Cameron Jordan of the New Orleans Saints had 13 sacks and 10 pass breakups. They're all mostly edge rushers, and they're all seemingly a major threat to Donald.

Quotable: "I think he was a little rusty when he came in, just football-wise, but after that he's been a dynamo. He's not superhuman, but he's almost unstoppable. People try to double-team him, they try to triple-team him, all those things, and he still makes plays and pressures the quarterback. We know the sacks, but the pressures -- I mean, he's pressured the quarterback multiple times more than anyone else in the league, and it isn't close. So that just shows what he can do." -- Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips on Donald's excellence.

(Previous: Cooper Kupp and AP Offensive Rookie of the Year; Jared Goff and AP Comeback Player of the Year; Sean McVay and AP Coach of the Year)